An ode to her grandmother’s candy jar, Cheryl Day’s butterscotch cake sports a tender, tangy crumb. But the magic is in the glaze, which tastes at once modern and decidedly old-school.
“When I visited my grandmother in Alabama, she always had this candy jar filled with these buttery caramels wrapped in wax paper,” says Day, co-owner of Savannah’s Back in the Day Bakery. “I remember sneaking them by the handfuls. This cake was a nod to those candies.”
The cake starts with a sour cream and brown sugar batter, giving it a tender crumb and caramel sweetness. Warming spices add another dimension of flavor. And the crowning touch, of course, is the glossy butterscotch glaze. Day cuts the sugar with a hint of salt—a modern twist on a vintage favorite. “I am naturally drawn to nostalgic, old-fashioned flavors,” Day says. “I like to use a few simple ingredients and build flavor and complexity, making them new, fresh and exciting.”
Indeed, much of the Back in the Day Bakery menu is inspired by the desserts of yesteryear. But Day is not only channeling her childhood; she’s also conjuring a family lineage that stretches back centuries.
Growing up in California, she often baked with her mother, pulling fruit from their trees to make lemon meringue and plum pies. “I would learn about her life growing up in the South and the opportunities that came after she left.” When her mother passed away, she left Day her journal, which included a trove of family lore and recipes.
As she describes in her forthcoming book, “Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking,” it was through these pages that Day rediscovered her great-great-grandmother, Hannah Queen Grubbs, who was born into slavery and cooked for a prominent politician. Locally renowned for her buttermilk biscuits, sweet potato pies and more, Grubbs eventually went into business as a caterer.
“It felt more powerful than ever to know that this woman who was born enslaved had the courage to create a life for herself—just as I am doing,” Day says. “I am grateful to have the opportunity to pay homage to her and so many like her in this book.”
“There is a casual elegance that makes its way into everyday life,” Cheryl Day says. “Southern bakers are resourceful.”
As a result, Day’s book is informed by Grubbs’ hand-written recipes—rare, precious artifacts from a time when such instructions were largely passed down through oral tradition. “Most of the Southern recipes we know and love today were created by enslaved or formerly enslaved women who were cooks and bakers just like my great- great-grandmother,” Day notes in her book.
She also points out that Southern baking has taken on an ethos of its own. “There is a casual elegance that makes its way into everyday life,” Day says. “Southern bakers are resourceful, and there is a certain pride of craft and charm about creating memorable experiences.”
But while the baked goods at Back in the Day offer a taste of history, they represent the forging of new traditions as well. For example, the butterscotch cake—which makes an appearance every fall—represents the union between Day and her husband, Griff, in its use of warming spices. Not a traditional Southern ingredient, the cardamom instead took a different route to find its way into this recipe. “I was first introduced to cardamom because of my husband’s Norwegian heritage,” Day says. “I love the floral, citrusy note that it adds to baked goods.”
Even with this Nordic addition, the cake still has the power to transport Day to her grandmother’s kitchen: “The glaze that pools in the bottom of the plate takes me right back.”